Dr. Temple Grandin thinks in pictures. She was diagnosed with autism as a child and, for many years, assumed everyone processed thoughts this way. “Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.”
I find that incredibly fascinating. Being so word-centric, it’s hard to imagine thinking solely in images. I suppose babies, before they acquire language, process the world around them in much the same way. And when Reggie thinks happy thoughts, he probably has images of belly-rubs and bacon dancing through his mind.
Dr. Grandin says, “As a person with autism, I have the typical profile of an area of great skill and an area of difficulty. Algebra was impossible because there was nothing to visualize, but I excelled at art.”
I never showed an aptitude for visual art. My elementary school art teacher kindly suggested I could read rather than inflict my “art” upon the class. I failed utterly at Pictionary. Even my doodles were words rather than pictures.
I just assumed that, unlike Dr. Grandin, my skill was telling stories in words, not pictures. My job is to communicate what my novel’s characters are thinking, feeling and doing. I’m visualizing these characters and their interactions, but I’m still using words. Lots and lots of words. Sometimes searching for just the right word or phrase will annoy me more than a big, fat fly who won’t leave my apartment.
Then there was an unexplained shift. I recently found myself sketching images on little Post-Its and napkins. Just a few minutes here and there when I needed a break at work. And then I was at Pearl Paints in Chinatown buying tubes of burnt sienna and Filbert brushes. Then I read Caitlin Kelly’s post about twenty things that make her happy, one of which is her dance class: “It’s such a delicious relief to leave words and speech behind, to sway and bend and spin and twist with others.” The reason why I was drawing and painting dawned on me: I needed to escape words for a little while. It was the perfect respite for my overtaxed left brain, kind of like taking a deep, cleansing breath. I could go ten or fifteen minutes without a single word entering my mind. That may be the norm for Temple Grandin, but for me, it is nothing short of miraculous. So I’d like to share with you the progression of my opus from blank canvas to almost done. I call this “Hawaiian Bungalow.”
I’m completely self-taught. I know, right! I can see your jaw hitting your desk in shock. How is that possible, you’re wondering. I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely true. Never had one lesson. Unless you count some episodes of Bob Ross and an ill-advised Groupon purchase.
Okay, between you and me, I’m not delusional. I know that this painting is one peg shy of absolutely terrible. An average six year old could do a better job. But it’s okay. Who says that you can only do things you’re good at? In fact, I’d contend that doing something poorly is the most freeing feeling in the world. No expectations. No pressure. Since I don’t need to be the next O’Keeffe or Picasso, I can break all the rules. Heck, I don’t even know the rules, and I don’t want to know them. I’d like to maintain a state of wordlessness when I paint or sketch. I could take a painting lesson, but then I’d be worried about “doing it right” and painting would become another area in my life where I Must Improve. I don’t want that. I want to suck.
However I’d like to leave you with an artist who most certainly does not suck. Someone who is incredibly talented. Meet Imi Woods. She paints beautiful animal portraits like the ones below. These are notecards of her paintings that I purchased through her new Etsy store where she’s just getting started in the business side of things. I remember reading that a portrait of a penguin took her 50 hours, but that painting “quiets my mind and fills me with a sense of calm.”
What quiets your mind? What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about “being good”?
Have a great weekend, everyone!